The Final Whistle

The Final Whistle brings together two teams on seemingly different, perhaps even opposing sides, theatre-goers and football fans. But in this performance, we are all playing the same game. Football, after all, isn’t far removed from theatre, it is an epic performance to an audience of thousands on some of the largest and most treasured stages of the world.

I went to see this new production, written and performed by Benedict Sandiford, with two die-hard Reading football fans, both of whom would never normally go to see a piece of contemporary site-specific theatre. They should have felt out of their comfort zone, as should I, a die-hard football avoider, in the changing rooms of the home team. But neither of our two opposing teams felt out of place. The merging of football and theatre in this piece works perfectly. It is through talking to my companions that I discover why this strange pairing works so well; in football, everyone has a story to tell. Every plastic seat, every beer queue, every stripey scarf, they are all family heirlooms, treasured artefacts that connect people to their past and the stories that surround them are passed down generation to generation. The stories, I realise, are all made of the same stuff and every football fan has one, a collection of memories centred around a game, a stadium, a team, a fateful year, or an unforgettable goal.

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You could sit with any Reading football fan and find common ground, because it is the fabric of people’s lives that are played out on that pitch, in the stands, and in living rooms up and down the country. Football is an excuse to talk, to laugh, to cry. It is a community that is inherited by the next generation, and passed on to them with fondness and nostalgia.

The piece itself is a cleverly woven collection of stories imparted to us, the team, by the passionate and humourous club manager. Through him we meet some of the great characters in Reading’s history, and the pivotal moments of the club’s past are played out before us as we are prepared for our match.  As we wander through the corridors of the player’s entrance, to the home changing room, peek into the ice bath, and finally step out on the pitch, we delve into the world of the heroes of Reading Football club. Some of these heroes are famous to many, Robin Friday, Steve Death, and some of these heroes are ordinary people lost in the sea of faces in the stands. But they are heroes to their sons and daughters attending their first game, awestruck and overwhelmed. It is these heroes who are really at play in this story, they are the ones whose legacy keeps the game alive. They are the parents who buy a season ticket for their first born at the tender age of 3.

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The stories of these everyday heroes are not normally told on stages, they are not celebrated in the West End, there are no great plot twists or clever special effects, they are every day stories, told to the backdrop of a game that unites more than it divides. In telling these stories, we celebrate the people who make the teams great, the people who fill the stadiums and live and die with their home teams in their hearts. This production captures those stories perfectly, particularly the power of inheriting a love and loyalty for a team from a dedicated father and as my two companions demonstrate, they both have the same story themselves.

Benedict Sandiford’s performance carries some skillful and delicate writing, and reaches moments of real laughter and poignancy. Cassie Friend, of Red Cape Theatre, lends her deft touch as director, and it is visible particularly in how the space is used. Ice baths become cars on a fraught road trip, and the audience are invited in as a team to play with the performer in the space. One of my football fan companions, Chez Annetts, who describes herself as ‘bleeding blue and white’ is really taken with how accurately Sandiford captures the passion of the game and of the fans and how specific his facts and figures are. She says ‘you can’t be a true fan without being passionate, it’s part of it’ and both reflect on the performance’s ability to draw you in to the world, ignite visceral and tangible memories, to capture the essence of what it means to be a part of this community.

This is a show for football lovers; this is a conversation with a mate in the pub about a great game a few years ago, the time we went to Wembley, or that awful moment when you missed the deciding goal queuing for the toilets. This is a tribute to the fans, to their community, comradery, family and stories.